2017-07-13 / Nature

Bluebirds Bring Happiness Back to Aquidneck Island

By Charles Avenengo

Visitors are asked to stay clear of the nesting boxes, because close human encounter disturbs the birds' routines. 
(Photo courtesy the Norman Bird Sanctuary) Visitors are asked to stay clear of the nesting boxes, because close human encounter disturbs the birds' routines. (Photo courtesy the Norman Bird Sanctuary) “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.”
Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Don’t you wish your

When students at Thompson Middle School enter science teacher Elizabeth Gibbs’ classroom, they are immediately introduced to “Lurch,” a 20-year-old snake. That gets their attention. It is an opening foray into the world of natural history. Gibbs is one of Aquidneck Island’s most accomplished naturalists, and the experience she brings to the classroom invariably rubs off on her students. She has been teaching at Thompson since 1998.

(Photo by Carmen Rugel) Bluebird (Photo by Carmen Rugel) In recent years, the variety of creative, nature-themed projects Gibbs has introduced to her students includes releasing

Last year, one of these projects, produced by a pair of her students, Ariona Gallo and Robert Zeller, proved to be nothing short of remarkable.

Switch momentarily to the Norman Bird Sanctuary, where for decades about 300 bird boxes have been installed every spring in the various fields to help the birds nest.

Cut back to Gibbs, who said, “I am one of the advisors to the URI SMILE afternoon science and math program at Thompson Middle School. Each spring, we do a stewardship project. Last year some of the kids wanted to do bird boxes, so [Gallo and Zeller] each made one," Gibbs said. "I showed one to Joe [McLaughlin, director of properties at the Norman Bird Sanctuary] to make sure it was what he wanted. The cool part is that Joe put up the box behind the NBS office, near the garden, and lo and behold, it is inhabited this year by bluebirds!”

Gibbs asked McLaughlin if the Bird Sanctuary needed nesting boxes. “We could always use more,” he said. “Our boxes are tree swallow nesting boxes. As far as the birding world goes, bluebirds haven’t nested on Aquidneck Island in 80 years. They’ve been spotted around here, but never seen actually nesting. With that said, they’re all around Aquidneck Island, in Tiverton, Bristol, Barrington.”

So, Gibbs and her charges built the prototype box for bluebirds, using designs provided by the Cornell School of Ornithology. They donated it to the Sanctuary, and now, for the first time in anyone’s collective memory, there are nesting bluebirds on Aquidneck Island.

This unexpected presence of nesting bluebirds comes as welcome news. Bluebirds are one of the most iconic birds in humanity. Across the globe, the reference to the “bluebird of happiness” is found in many cultures and dates back thousands of years. Frequently referred to in literature and verse, the idiom in the United States was coined in the popular 1948 song, “Bluebird of Happiness.”

While bluebirds may be generic in nature, given that many species worldwide have blue plumages, the actual species that the students attracted to the Bird Sanctuary is the Eastern bluebird. In North America, there are three types of bluebirds. Slightly larger than sparrows, the bluebirds are members of the thrush family. The male of the Eastern bluebird, the species found east of the Mississippi River, has a brilliant royal blue topside and a warm orange-brown breast. They nest in cavities, which accounts for the nationwide proliferation of bluebird nest boxes.

A countryside drive will often produce bluebirds perched on wires or fences, alertly ready to pounce on their favorite food sources, such as ground-dwelling insects like grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars and spiders. In autumn, bluebirds switch their diet to berries and fruits. They are also not averse to snapping up the luckless snake, salamander, lizard, or even a shrew that wanders below its watchful vigilance.

According to Howe and Sturtevant’s “The Birds of Rhode Island,” published in 1899, bluebirds were listed as “A common summer resident.” But this historical entry refers to the state at large. No reference can be found to their nesting specifically on Aquidneck Island.

But now, with the help of Gibbs and the pair of Thompson Middle School students, the end of the rainbow on Aquidneck Island has produced bluebirds.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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